The Art of Translating Current Events into Research

by Jerry Davis

In a previous post I described the benefits of using the real world to source research topics, and how seasoned scholars like Mayer Zald had the ability to read the newspaper and have insightful takes that could spark a study – maybe even a dissertation.  

The world is an endless source of researchable topics if you develop certain habits. The first is to know your lane: what domains matter most to you? For me these days, that includes “new organizational designs enabled by technology,” “corporate power and antitrust/competition law,” and “controversies over ESG.” Having some expertise in an area helps identify events or trends that are likely to be especially informative.  

Second, ask yourself “What is this a case of?” How might you think about generalizing from this case? What is it like and unlike? This thinking connects your event to existing theory and literature. There is a reason you should pay attention in your doctoral seminars: they equip you to be a thoughtful consumer and “categorizer” of the news. 

Last, if you were to turn this case into a research study, what would be the dependent variable? What is the variation you are trying to explain? What are the entities that this variation applies to? It might be people, groups, companies, industries, countries, etc. Can you phrase it as a question – “Why is it that…?” or “How is it that…?” 

Here are my latest examples to help. I use Evernote to keep track of articles I find on the web. In one week in January before our recent webinar, there were five that stood out as potential research contexts. 

Millions of gig workers could qualify as employees under new Biden-era rule” (January 9) Uber, DoorDash, Task Rabbit – all these platform-based gig economy firms depend for their profit performance on a very loose enforcement of labor standards and definitions of what counts as a contractor vs. an employee. (Jurisdictions outside the US have often been far more rigorous in identifying platform workers as employees, entitled to standard protections and benefits.) What happens to these companies when the US Department of Labor begins enforcing more thoughtful new standards? How will competition change? What new organizational forms might arise if companies are compelled to provide the basic dignity and compensation required by the employment relation? 

Single SF restaurant may be operating 70 different storefronts on DoorDash.” (January 12) The Covid pandemic accelerated the move to ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants, where a delivery-only “firm” posts a menu online that is produced in an anonymous kitchen and delivered by nominally self-employed contractors. But 70 notionally different restaurants, all operated out of a modest place called “Fresco Pizza-Shawerma,” was intriguing. What are the boundaries of the firm here? Is each menu a separate entity? If I gather data on the restaurant industry via DoorDash, might I be violating some assumptions about the independence of observations? 

New Hampshire bill would make it a felony to knowingly use ESG criteria in investing taxpayer dollars.” (January 16) ESG has become weirdly controversial in the US, particularly in states like Texas. This proposed New Hampshire law would make it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison to use environmental, social, or governance data to invest state funds. “The prohibited interests include limiting investments or divesting from gun manufacturers; limiting investments or divesting from companies that don’t meet environmental standards; and assessing corporate boards’ governance policies on compensation, composition and employment.” So…basing investments on board composition or executive pay could get you 20 years in the big house? What’s behind the spread of these wild laws? Why some states and not others? What impact does this have on local companies and investment firms? 

The tyranny of the algorithm: why every coffee shop looks the same.” (January 16) DiMaggio and Powell (1983) told us that the state and the professions were major forces in enforcing isomorphism, leading organizations to all become similar over time. But what about Instagram? Might social media be an even more potent force in shaping the diversity or homogeneity of organizations? 

And here is a bonus one – “eBay to Pay $3M After Employees Sent Spiders, Cockroaches to Couple.” (January 11) To be honest, I don’t have any great insights about this, other than finding the story pretty wild. What is this a case of – organizational wrongdoing, corporate culture, late capitalism run amok? 

Not all these cases are sturdy enough to serve as the foundation for a dissertation, but there is real value in being able to connect events in the world to the larger currents that drive our research. As a bonus, sometimes these events can also help you explain what exactly it is you do as a researcher to normal folks who do not process the news in quite the same way. 

One comment on “The Art of Translating Current Events into Research

  1. I have been cataloging cases of public policies with apparent wide public support that cannot be enacted because of democratic deficits in the federal structure.

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